Monday, February 21, 2011

Facing Up to Anger

A week ago, I witnessed a protest in Yorba Linda, California. Church groups, Tea-partiers and the members of some Jewish congregations had been called on to protest the charity fundraising dinner of the Islamic Circle of North America at which two controversial Muslim leaders were speaking. The protesters had gathered to protest both the speakers and the aims of the organization which they see as having a “radical Islamicist agenda.” I will let the reader do their own research to judge the merits of the protest, the organization and its speakers.

The protest itself was a mob scene in which the assembled crowd armed with signs and American Flags hurled insults at the Muslim families who were rushing into the hall or rushing out. They were told to “Go home!” and called “Terrorist.” Women in hijab were special targets. All men were addressed as “Ahmed” and one piously Christian adult made it a point to yell at little children that “Mohammed was a pedophile” others in the crowd followed this with “Jesus loves you!” It was bizarre and it was a disgrace.

As the crowd was yelling, I looked around at the faces of those screaming their insults and I was reminded of a teaching of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.
He taught the following

When a person gives way to anger, it stirs up the great accuser, Esau, or Edom. The accuser in the upper world is the source of a flurry of accusers and enemies who come down and take charge of this angry man. His anger puts his wisdom to flight, and the image of G-d disappears from his face. He no longer has the face of a man. This is why he is in the power of his enemies. Because he has the appearance of a beast they are not afraid of him (Likutei Moharan 57:6).

It is true. What I saw around me were not the faces of human beings but the faces of wild animals. I no longer saw the beautiful reflection of divinity that is the essence of a human being’s soul. That soul had been so defiled by anger, so twisted by blind rage that it was gone.

Strangely seeing that brought me an unusual calm and a strength. My own anger at them retreated, and for a few moments, instead of enraged human beings, I saw cornered frightened snarling animals. Perhaps their fears are not real, but their response was. It was not a human response, certainly not a G-dly response, it was a response from their animal being.

A few days ago, I encountered this teaching of Imam Al-Ghazali in his discussion of the causes of anger and its cure. One of the cures is as follows:

Another kind of medicine based on knowledge is to think about the
ugly face of the angry man, which is just like that of the ferocious
beast. He who appeases anger looks like a sober and learned man.

Unwittingly, I had done Imam al-Ghazali's exercise and it had worked. In the face of the ferocious beast within another I found, at least for some moments, the humanity in myself. The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, taught that every experience in our lives has the potential of giving us instruction in our service of G-d. Here it seems very clear. When we are surrounded with hostility we just need to look at the faces around us. We can look into the face that is staring us down and see that inner animal, see the tangible evidence that for that moment, our “enemy” has lost the struggle within and let that experience heal us, to allow the humanity within us to be victorious.

Note on the picture:
To find out more about that picture above from Little Rock, Arkansa in 1957 check out this article. Its quite a story.¤tPage=all

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The World is full of Strife

I have been pretty quiet for these last few weeks as the world has been caught up and continues to be caught up in strife and conflict. The events of these days show us that strife can be as creative as it can be destructive. The struggle both within and without can produce both tremendous good and tremendous evil. This is true not only of strife on a grand scale but for strife at every level. Indeed, as this piece from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov illustrates, all strife bears a common nature, from the conflict of nations to the struggles of the individual with their own multiple selves. I have come back again and again to this piece from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov on the nature of strife and on the nature of struggle. I offer it as a kind of poetic meditation. Please let me know what you think. (As always I love to see parallel texts from the Muslim tradition as well.)

The World is Full of Strife

The entire world is full of strife, between nations of the world, between one city and another. And so in every house, and with the neighbors, between husband and wife and between parents and children.
And yet, no one turns their heart to the ultimate end of life, that people die every day and the day that has past will never be again, that every day brings us closer to death.

Know that each and every form of strife, even that between husband and wife is in reality the same as the struggle between nations. Each member of the family is their own country, and their quarrels are their wars. The qualities of each nation are also reflected in these individuals. Some nations are known for anger, others for blood-thirstiness. Each one has its particular quality. These same traits are found in each household.

Even if you don’t want to fight and you want to live in peace and calm, you are forced into struggle. So it is with nations. A nation may desire peace and make many concessions to achieve it. But no matter how much it tries to remain neutral, it can still be caught up in war. Two opposing sides can demand its allegiance until it is drawn into war against its will.

The same is true in a household. Man is a miniature world. His essence contains the world and everything in it. A man and his family contain the nations of the world, and all their battles.

Thus a man living alone can sometimes go crazy. Right there within him are all the warring nations. His personality is that of the victorious nation. Each time a different nation is victorious, he must change completely and this can drive him insane. He is alone and can’t express the war within him. But when one lives with others, these battles are expressed toward his family and friends…

When the Messiah comes all wars will be abolished. The world will have eternal peace, as it is written, "They will neither hurt nor destroy…" (Isaiah 11:9).

- Sichot HaRan